Gateway to Hell
Is one of Berlin's most prized antiquities - the Pergamon Altar - actually Satan's throne on Earth?
The iron gate opened at an unnervingly sluggish pace. The grand villa, which hosted 1942’s notorious Wannsee Conference, stood solemnly before us, framed gracefully by mournful branches. At this very location, against an idyllic fairytale backdrop of wooded suburbs and beautiful lakes, senior Nazis met in splendour to formally seal the fate of Jews across Europe. We ventured down the driveway, which offered nothing more than regimented nature and two stone statues, which would have been cherubic if they hadn’t so uncannily resembled Winston Churchill. As we stood breathing in the potent ambiance of melancholy, we noticed a solitary grey-haired gentleman who appeared to be observing the bleakly poignant building from an apprehensive distance. Politely, I nodded in his direction.
“Hello,” he barked in a thick Wild West twang.
“You’re American?” I shot back, hoping not to offend yet another Canadian.
“I’m a minister from Texas. Do you know of the evil that happened in the building before us?”
The Texas origin added up. He was a sharply dressed fellow, even in the autumn of his years, and possessed a certain no-nonsense gunslinger quality. In place of a revolver however, he brandished a brown, leather-bound Bible. “I’ve visited here over 30 times,” he informed my Swedish companion Frida and me. “Berlin is the gateway to Satan, so I keep coming back.”
While this chance encounter was taking an unexpected turn, I initially deduced that the man must be a fundamentalist Christian angered by Berlin’s famously liberal values and long, and still lively, tradition of burlesque decadence. However, I was wrong. Taking his cue from The Book of Revelation, he explained that the Great Altar of Pergamon, the defining jewel of Berlin’s world-renowned collection of antiquities, the Pergamon Museum, is in fact Lucifer’s red carpet into our world.
The preacher man believed, as he explained to us, that the Altar’s removal from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon (now Bergama, in modern-day Turkey) and its subsequent placement in Berlin had been a precursor to both of the 20th century’s world wars – and that its sinister influence will soon bring about the next. Satan would apparently bring about WWIII during the fallout of the current economic crisis.
His calm yet intense intonation had nothing of the manic amateur thespian quality one typically associates with religious fanatics. Rather, he possessed an air of Stetson-clad authority that brought to mind John Wayne or the latter-day Johnny Cash. Most captivatingly, he was clearly utterly convinced by the validity of his God-given mission to bring salvation to Berlin, Satan’s apparent heartland.
“I’m praying for you,” he declared finally.
As we continued on our original journey into the Villa Wannsee, which now acts as a muted Holocaust museum, our self-appointed spiritual guru resumed his vigil. However, peering through a window back over the driveway just moments later, I observed that, in true cinematic tradition, he had vanished.
Stepping into the mindset of fringe Christianity can be challenging. It’s a place where embodiments of good and evil stalk the Earth, fighting an all-too-real war and acting as the catalysts behind significant global events. Metaphors and half measures are out of vogue, as angels, devils and supernatural parables are taken on a completely literal level. Nonetheless, whether superstitious hyperbole or not, the Pergamon Altar’s history is undeniably intertwined with the horrors of war and depression.
Constructed in Pergamon in the second century BC, the Altar is commonly understood to be a dedication to Zeus or Athena. Its sculpted ‘Great Frieze’ depicts a vicious battle of mythical gods and giants, encompassing winged horses, poisonous serpents and irate lions sinking their teeth into bullnecked goliaths. A once culturally rich city of divine beauty, Pergamon fell into ruin after an economic slump made it a prime target for invaders, who left many of its inhabitants gruesomely slain.
The Altar was rediscovered in the 1870s by German engineer Carl Humann, who at the time was working on road construction in Turkey. Concerned that his finds would become the prey of locals using the area as a stone quarry, Humann elected for a short period to take up residence amongst the ghosts of Pergamon. By September 1878, in exchange for 20,000 marks, the powers behind Berlin’s museums had been authorised by the Turkish State to begin their excavation of the Pergamon ruins under Humann’s direction. “We are not totally indifferent to the implications of uprooting the remains of a great monument from its native soil to bring it to us where we will not ever again be able to offer it the light and surroundings in which it was created, and in which it once was fully effective,” wrote German archæologist Alexander Conze, a specialist in ancient Greek art, “yet we have seized it from certain, complete destruction.” 
However, the resurrection of the Pergamon Altar brought little good fortune to its new host city. The Altar’s relocation to Berlin was to precede the mass bloodshed of World War I by little more than a decade. The subsequent great depression, heralded by Black Tuesday, followed in 1929. Looking for political change, an economically frail Germany, suffering from high unemployment, class warfare and unparalleled inflation, gave Adolf Hitler the Chancellorship. Notably, the Pergamon Altar acted as muse to head Nazi architect Albert Speer, who based Nuremberg’s Nazi rally grandstand, the ‘Zeppelintribüne’, on its imposing design.
The Pergamon Museum was badly damaged by air raids towards the end of WWII, while segments of the Altar, which had been stored for safekeeping in a Berlin bunker, were seized by the Red Army and taken back to the Soviet Union. In 1959, these pieces were returned to the GDR, along with other AWOL relics, before the Altar could be restored to its pre-war glory under the direction of archæologist Carl Blümel.
The Altar’s notoriety in Christian circles stems from the aforementioned possible reference in the Book of Revelation 2:12–13:
And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
Dr Volker Kästner is a leading archæologist specialising in the city of Pergamon. He has worked at the Pergamon Museum since 1982 and has been heavily involved in its continuing restoration. For him, the idea that Pergamon is “where Satan’s seat is” can be explained: “Pergamon was seen by Byzantine sources as a particularly pagan place where unchristian cults thrived, and with some imagination the Altar could resemble a throne. Secondly, the Altar’s frieze encompasses many sculpted snakes, which since Antiquity have been viewed as a symbol connected to the underworld, representing something inhuman – but it’s all speculation.”
A further stir erupted when Barack Obama apparently plundered the design of ‘Satan’s Altar’ for the epic backdrop to his Democratic nominee acceptance speech  following his well-documented visit to Berlin in July of 2008. This elaborate stage dressing was widely seen as a pre-election Democratic faux pas and mocked by the media and Obama’s Republican opponents, who insisted that his employment of phoney Greek columns exposed delusions of grandeur. Unsurprisingly, the allegedly Lucifer-endorsed ‘Barapolis’ also raised the collective eyebrows of conservative Christians already suspicious of Obama’s supposedly leftist agenda.
On another scale entirely, this political showmanship has fuelled extremist assertions that Obama is the Antichrist incarnate poised to destroy America  just in time for the 2012-doomsday celebrations. To put that into sobering context though, these very same people typically believe that the number of letters in Obama’s name unquestionably equates to ‘666’ and that his crowd-rousing mantra of “yes we can” is actually “thank you, Satan” mouthed backwards. Back on Planet Earth, Dr Kästner himself sees little foundation in the Obama/Pergamon connection. “As far as I am aware, Obama and his people have made no contact with the Pergamon Museum or given us any indication that they are interested in the Altar.”
Surveying the Altar today, a popular highbrow tourist attraction in the heart of Berlin, it is certainly extraordinary. At 46m long and 11m high, its stone mass reduces the spectator to insect-like obscurity.
“The sculptures contained within the Altar’s frieze are to me, extraordinarily emotional works of world class art,” says Kästner. Indeed, it’s easy to see how myths and legends have sprung from such a grandiose work and intriguing to ponder the Altar’s great secrets, forever buried in the mists of time. Could it be an Earthly portal for Christianity’s arch nemesis? A monument imbued by the spirit of the ancient Pagan gods? A cursed harbinger of doom?
“The Pergamon Museum is the most visited museum in Berlin,” Dr Kästner informs me. “Last year, we had 1.5 million people through our doors. This year, it’s likely the Altar will have even more guests.”
Whether or not one of them will be sporting cloven hooves and a pitchfork remains to be seen.
1 Philipp Von Zabern: The Pergamon Altar, 1995.
2 'Obama's acceptance speech hit some high notes, but his themes won't hold up', CBS News, 29 Aug 2008.
3 'Obama tells country "Serve Satan" (or not)', Boing Boing, 4 April 2009.